Sweden-based Santiago Nieva had big boots to fill when he was appointed by the Boxing Federation of India in 2017 as Dronacharya awardee BI Fernandez’s successor as India coach.
At the time, the 42-year-old entered the setup when the federation was going through a revamp after close to four years of administrative turmoil.
Nieva’s methods have already garnered widespread praise, be it his use of technology, man management skills, in-ring skills or eye for detail – something that many of his wards had vouched for leading up the Games.
An impressive showing in the World Championships last year was followed by India winning three golds and as many silver and bronze medals in the recently Commonwealth Games.
Wary of a tougher playing field during the upcoming Asian Games, Nieva gave his two cents on India’s upcoming talent, the controversial points-scoring system and his coaching philosophy.
Before the start of the Commonwealth Games, the needle controversy made headlines for the wrong reasons. What was the mood in the camp during what was a difficult time for the team?
We were calm about the fact that there was nothing [to worry about]. The press can talk whatever they want. But we were focussed on what was ahead.
India’s next-gen comprising of Amit Panghal, Naman Tanwar, Gaurav Solanki and Mohammad Hussamuddin delivered eye-catching performances. Where are India’s younger crop of boxers placed at the moment?
We have a lot of international level boxers who are capable of making the jump to medal winners in Olympics and World Championships. We have a mix of experienced boxers and younger boxers who are also at a very good level. We are hopeful for the future.
There were some interesting calls ahead of the Games. Gaurav Bidhuri, for instance, some experts felt should have been a part of the team having won a World Championship medal. Bronze medallist Naman Tanwar put in some thrilling displays with his lethal attacks.
Naman was the national champion and won gold in Kazakhstan. Even in the Indian Open, he performed exceedingly well. But he has tough competition in his weight category as Sumit [Sanghwan] and Sanjeet have also been doing good things, and also performed well in the India Open.
Finally, we had a trial bout between Naman and Sumit and that was a close affair. Naman emerged victorious. He did well and we want more from him. At his absolute best, he could won the semi-final bout against the Australian [Jason Whateley]. With some more experience and tactical knowledge, he will be winning those bouts in the future.
In Gaurav’s case, he is a fantastic boxer – he showed that in the World Championships. But he missed the Nationals, India Open and the trials. So there was no way we could risk him in a competition like CWG.
And we have other world class boxers like Hussamuddin, who has been winning medals in tournaments – and he won bronze. Hopefully, Bidhuri will make a comeback and fight for his spot.
It’s been a little more than 13 months since you joined the setup. Do you think the current crop has bought into your boxing philosophy at this stage?
Yes, I am seeing more tactical awareness from them. More boxers handling those situations better than our opponents. It didn’t happen overnight but I can see my coaching philosophy working on most of the boxers.
There have been mixed opinions about the points-scoring system after since the computer scoring system was scrapped. In big tournaments, decisions have come under the scanner on multiple occasions. Comment.
The old system with a points-scoring machine. That was a different style but in comparison, 80% of it is still the same – you have to score more than your opponent. However, there are other factors that are important in this system. In the old scoring machine, you could box tactically and kill the fight and just ensure that the opponent didn’t add any scoring blows.
But now, you have to impress the judges and we are concentrating on those things….we are doing very well. There are very few occasions when our boxers have made mistakes.
Many from the current crop have mentioned how you have introduced new fitness methods. However, there are bouts where Indians have been found wanting in brute strength. Would you say there is tangible progress on that front?
We have made progress on that front. All boxers and coaches like the changes we have implemented. Changes are very difficult to make but from day one, they have implemented this. Still, I feel we have a long way to go.
We could see in the CWG that our boxers didn’t have the physique of some of the other countries. Especially against the English and the Irish. We can see that almost all our boxers were smaller and less muscular. Our boxers had more fat on the body. A combination of a good strength training programme and nutrition habits is something we need to develop. That will make a more of a difference in the future.
The decision to do away with headguards – something that has been revisited multiple times – has left boxers vulnerable to injuries. Did you encounter such medical challenges recently and how do you weigh on the headgear debate?
It is insane to be a part of a high intensity bout for nine minutes without headgear. That shows that in all competitions, there a lot of cuts. We also experienced a lot of nasty cuts. At the CWG, fortunately, we had only one [Hussamuddin in the semis].
Husamuddin has had cuts in every competition. Those cuts are not healing and that is affecting his performance and his long-term chances. It is crazy that they don’t go back to head gear.
It is become a little bit political now. One can see that in every bout, there are atleast three or four cuts in every competition.
And there is a reason why they have not removed the head gear in women’s boxing and in youth boxing, which they said a couple of years ago. Now, they don’t want to change the decision. I am aware that there are many boxers who are in favour of removing the head gear. But, there is a reason why a majority of them have their head gear on. There is a reason why there is head gear in sparring – it affects their preparation, the training, but most of all, it affects their skull. When there is a hard blow to the skull, it hurts harder than a glove.
And it is not the glove that cuts boxers; the gloves are soft. The head hurts and so do the cuts.
Tactically, how have things changed in the Indian setup?
There is still a lot of work to be done on that front. The rear upper cuts against the Irishman in the semi-final [Vikas Krishan against Northern Ireland’s Steven Donnelly], we were knocking him down. For me that, that was the first knockdown I have seen from the Indian boxers in any sparring or bouts. That too from a southpaw. For me, that is the dream punch. Every southpaw should have a solid rear upper cut to delivery. That was a joy for me.
There is still too much head-hunting though. I still think we are a work in progress there.
A word on Haryana’s success in producing a fine pool of boxers in the recent past?
I have not travelled around the country much. But Haryana for instance, is good across sports and they have invested a lot there. It is clearly showing why they are doing better than other states.
In every country, you have these hubs where some sports excel. Success for a couple of them means that it is easier for the younger generation to follow that success and produce good boxers all the time.
The transition phase for some while making the jump from youth boxers to senior level is not always smooth. Many fall on the wayside during that process. What does the system need to do for curbing this?
We need to work with the junior and youth boxers. Then the gap will not be so big. Some of them who did well in World Series of Boxing are doing elite boxing too, where there are five-round bouts [in the former]. And they did not have much experience in the youth category.
In the lighter weights in particular, you can see that. You saw that with Naman too. For the youth who had international experience, the jump is shorter; they can make that leap in a short time.
Were you happy with the overall results in CWG?
Yes. This is the best result India has had so we could have not asked for more. Having all men reach the semis and five of them reach the final, it was a great achievement. This pool also had fight against world class boxers from England and Ireland.
I would say that we didn’t lose any bouts where we were favourites to win. The bouts we lost – all except one was a gold medallist. Of course, the CWG is not in the same level as the Asian Games today, despite there being good boxers from England and Ireland. The Asian Games will be a lot tougher and Uzbekistan and Kazkahstan are tough opponents. We want to make that step up.
We were going to Michael Jordan Academy and High Performance Centre [In USA] but that was cancelled due to visa issues and some logistical problems. There is an 18-day camp in Bellary. We have different competitions in the month of June, after which we will select the team.